To those of you who know me I am about to admit something that might just make you spew your coffee or happy hour beverage all over the room. I recommend swallowing before reading on.
I have doubts about feminism.
Oh, don’t worry. I am deeply committed to fighting injustice, I absolutely find evidence that men and women in our world do not play on a level field, and I remain convinced that patriarchy is at the root of a lot (if not most) of the problems our world, and our planet, faces.
But “feminism” as a concept needs some unpacking. Some nuance. Some complexity.
My students often express discomfort with the term feminism while simultaneously embracing the fundamentals of the movement. They often tell me, “I’m not a feminist, I am a humanist.” They think that the term “feminism” excludes non-female concerns, that it is only about women in the same way that they think that patriarchy is only about male privilege.
I respond to this concern by explaining that feminism owes its very existence to our foremothers who fought for the rights we have gained, and the women and men who continue the fight, both in our first world countries and in the rest of the world. I remind my students that, while there are socially constructed stereotypes for both men and women, that these constructs disproportionally disadvantage women. I tell them that, like affirmative action, feminism is a movement with an expiration date: when men and women, bois and grrls, butch and fem, bears and show queens, can all be valued for who they are, feminism will no longer be necessary. But that time is not yet come and the term has historical significance that replacing it would negate.
And they get it. But here’s the thing: I get where they’re coming from, too. I sometimes suspect that the term has become too limited. “Feminism” is actually a collection of perspectives and arguments that make different points, have different concerns, answer the “man question” differently, and disagree and even contradict. Some feminists are suspicious of anyone with a penis because most people with penises are blinded by male privilege even if they try not to be. Some argue that patriarchy is just as detrimental to men as it is to women. Some say that feminism itself is a concept created by privileged white women. Others argue that the best thing a person can do with privilege is use it to tear down the system – using the master’s tools to destroy the master’s house, as it were. Feminism is more than one thing.
Furthermore, anyone who studies the history of feminism must grapple with the ways that it has marginalized members of its own movement. During first wave of feminism when suffragettes fought for the right to vote, the concerns of women of color were overlooked or even intentionally excluded. During second wave feminism and the fight to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, lesbian voices were silenced. Today feminists are debating the role of trans women in the movement. Race continues to be an issue through all the waves. Feminism has been fraught with disagreement, factionalism, and debate from the very beginning.
And yet feminism is generally understood as a monolithic movement. Even many who claim the title focus on shared concerns and initiatives, downplaying differences. Others cry out to be heard, even to the point of distancing themselves from ,or even attacking, feminism.
Take this recent article in The Huffington Post, “Why Sex-Positive Feminism is Bad for Me” by Kelly Rose Pflug-Back. While I highly encourage a close reading of the whole article, here is the gist of the argument: “I immediately felt alienated by the ways in which mainstream feminist movements approached things like sexual empowerment and body acceptance. Almost 10 years later, the face of popular, ‘sex-positive’ feminism seems to have changed very little. It still seems to be a movement geared towards middle-class, mostly white, liberal, cis-women for whom liberation may indeed be a simple matter of achieving greater sexual satisfaction, ending the culture of slut-shaming, and re-appropriating femme aesthetics. For people who face more obstacles in the path towards reclaiming and realizing their sexuality, this sort of uncompromisingly positive and monolithic view of sex can come off as anywhere from frivolous to brutally alienating.”
Pflug-Back chronicles how early sexual abuse left her feeling deeply traumatized and how the ways in which her sexuality developed as a teenager and young adult often took on patterns of drug and alcohol abuse, cutting, eating disorders, and promiscuity. Feminism, in asking her to love and accept her body, effectively asked her to love and accept the abuse her body had sustained. Pflug-Back concludes that sex-positive feminism like the Cliteracy project is not for her.
The Cliteracy Project is an art installation by Sophia Wallace that seeks, among other things, to highlight the role of the clitoris in women’s sexual pleasure. The vast majority of visual representations of male-female intercourse depict women as orgasming during penetration, which is not true to biology. Only about 30 percent of women orgasm during penetration and even that 30 percent report a substantial difference in intensity between clitoral and vaginal orgasms and yet the penis is privileged as the main instrument whereby women achieve pleasure. In the words of the artist: “The project reveals the – phallic as neutral – bias in science, law, philosophy, politics, mainstream and even feminist discussion, and the art world - which is so saturated with the female body as subject. Using text as form, CLITERACY explores the construction of female sexual bodies as passive vehicles of reception defined by lack.” The project is an attempt to reframe women’s pleasure according to reality, as opposed to patriarchal fantasy.
Pflug-Back and Wallace are two different types of feminist. Their experiences and needs are diametrically opposed. How they frame themselves as feminists is diverse. And neither of them is a feminist in the way I am a feminist.
I find Pflug-Back’s concern that sex-positive feminism is for straight, white women to be a valid critique. Sex-positive feminism has been criticized for teaching men and their female partners that getting a woman off is what it means for a man to be a feminist and that female feminists have lots of orgasms. Pflug-Back dismisses Wallace’s work by stating: “‘Freedom in society can be measured by distribution of orgasms,’ reads another slogan of Wallace's Cliteracy project -- a statement that seems almost painfully ludicrous when we consider the millions of women worldwide whose freedoms, sexual and otherwise, are devastated on a daily basis by state violence, environmental degradation, poverty, racism, and the wide variety of other hardships women must tackle in the contemporary world, in addition to a lack of sexual gratification.”
This is a fair evaluation of sex-positive feminism. But it doesn’t mean that sex-positive feminism is bad or not worth pursuing. The Cliteracy Project is helping millions of women accept their needs and desires as normal in a world that focuses an inordinate amount of attention on the desires and expressions of the male. Furthermore, I find Pflug-Back’s conclusions as ridiculous as Wallace’s. Pflug-Back writes, “Given the alarming prevalence of rape and sexual violence in our society, perhaps all of us, regardless of gender, should begin with the assumption that all female-bodied partners we have (and, realistically, quite a few of our male-bodied partners as well) are survivors.”
I am not a survivor of sexual violence. I have never been raped and my relationships, sexual and otherwise, have been overwhelmingly positive. Furthermore, I have not framed the incidents that society might label abusive as such. For example:
In high school I went on a couple of dates with a popular jock a year ahead of me. I found him shallow and boring and ultimately uninteresting. Our “relationship,” if it can even be termed as such, culminated on our second date when he became a bit persistent about having sex. I turned him down flat, telling him that I was not ready to take that step. We were in the “heavy petting” mode and he basically dry humped me until he came. I did not consent to this behavior; I remember thinking that it would just be easier to let him do his thing and then get rid of him. He came, I showed him the door, and I do not believe we ever spoke again. When he told his friends that he had “done it” with me, I laughed derisively and said, “Yeah, in his dreams.” That ended it.
Some people might label this incident as sexual assault. Victims of date rape often report thinking that letting their rapist finish would be easier than putting up a fight – I had a very similar thought. Yet I do not feel victimized or traumatized. More importantly, I feel that labeling myself as a survivor would accomplish two things, both of them bad. First, I have seen a lot of people deny their own power by accepting themselves as victims. Furthermore, it seems as if many people begin to heal from trauma when they move past viewing themselves as victims – one of the reasons I have healthy relationships is because I define myself as having autonomy and being worthy of respect. Secondly, labeling myself as a victim of sexual assault would equate my experience with the experience of people who have been gang-raped, had their clitorises forcibly removed, and been kept as sexual slaves. An equation of this sort vastly overlooks the differences between my experience and theirs.
I do not think of myself as a survivor because I have not been victimized. I have no memory of any shame or guilt following the incident I recounted above. The only thing I remember is feeling a bit amused by the whole thing. In thinking about this incident today I discovered that I cannot even remember jock boy’s name.
I am a privileged, white woman. To construct my identity in any other way would be an attempt to hide or deny the power that this world affords me. To identify as a “victim” or a “survivor” does disservice to the real crimes that have been committed upon other bodies.
White people often feel something called “white guilt.” Since our ancestors brutalized people of color the world over, we continue to reap the spoils of their conquests and receive privileges we have not earned. Then there’s “survivor’s guilt” experienced by people who survive a disaster while others die. We wonder why we were spared when people as good (if not better than us) die. Articles like Pflug-Back’s give me a weird case of survivor’s guilt: it’s as though she’s suggesting that to be a real feminist I need to experience rape.
I don’t actually think she means this at all but my response made me start really thinking through my thoughts on feminism. It is not a single, monolithic thing. In fact, the kind of feminism that will help Pflug-Back heal is exactly the sort that might make Wallace extraordinarily uncomfortable. The sort of feminism Wallace needs makes Pflug-Back feel alienated. Neither feminist can provide the sort of feminism third world women of color living in war zones need.
And so I began to wonder: do we need more options? Could it be that labeling anything deemed a “women’s issue” as feminism is just another way that society limits and controls female concerns and the expression of marginalized perspectives? Or will diversifying the movement weaken it? Have we reached the point when we need to stand as individuals? Or should we stand united as women?